Dealing with Difficult Passages

This week’s lesson is brought to us by Good Word from Walla Walla. To listen to the audio conversation, please visit the Good Word website.

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What should I do if I find something in the Bible that is hard to understand or seems to disagree with something else I read there?

Introduction In a book the size of the Bible, there are bound to be parts that challenge us. This is to be expected, first of all, if it is a book about God whose divine Spirit inspired the writers. Why should we expect anything that originates with an all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal Spirit-being to be limited to simple human terms? More than this, the sheer size of the book and subjects it covers should give us pause before expecting everything to line up perfectly. What is perhaps amazing, then, is how much of the Old and New Testament actually do fit together! The more I study, the more I see parallels of thought, consistent messages, lines of history converging on Christ and God’s mighty acts in the world, and His role in my own life as I trust Him day by day. But what happens when we come to passages that seem to be at odds, theological discussions from different points of view, or even proverbs back-to-back that seem to say the opposite thing? What if a description doesn’t harmonize with current scientific understanding? Are there steps to make studying these things easier? Should we be looking to protect our faith at all costs? Does any single supposed contradiction mean the Bible isn’t God’s Word and I should renounce my faith? This lesson is quite helpful, insofar as it goes.

What Makes a Passage Difficult? There are numerous ways we can be challenged by a text, and perhaps each requires a different way of addressing the difficulty. But with each, asking God’s Spirit to help, to lead, and to give me a teachable heart seems the correct first step.

Literary

1. I don’t understand the wording or phrase.

2. Places or people are unfamiliar, or unknown historical background seems implied (what does the name “Maher Halal Shash Baz” mean?)

3. Metaphors or symbolism doesn’t make sense (“four corners of the earth”?)

4. I cannot follow the author’s argument well (Paul’s metaphor of Hagar and Sarah in Galatians)

5. Parallel passages say different things (one demoniac or two in Gadera?)

Here, Bible dictionaries can be of great help, as can reading a Bible in a different version. Look up the passage in Study Bible, or even a Bible Commentary. There are many sources available online that can answer some of these questions. Of course, learning the original languages can be a huge benefit in Bible study, but this is unreasonable for many people.

Theological

6. One’s theology doesn’t have room for certain texts. For instance, if I believe that the Bible teaches there is not an ever-burning hell, how do I manage texts that suggest that the punishment of the wicked is torture in a lake of fire forever?

7. Modern Science seems to be at odds with a specific Bible teaching. It seems that Geology, Archaeology, Biology and Physics seem to be the most significant areas of agreement/disagreement with the Bible where arguments are made for or against the following Biblical statements or beliefs: creation by God in seven days, life created ex nihilo (out of nothing) or through evolutionary process, a world-wide flood, miracles like the virgin birth or resurrection.

8. Theological concepts seem beyond my ability to internalize or grasp.

The first piece of advice may be to accept a bit of tension in your theology. There may be passages that never fit our tight package of theological “truth.” Being OK with that and admitting where the challenges to our beliefs lie is mature. However, these should also prompt us to revisit our theology, asking God’s guidance. The difficult passages may be pointing out something we’re missing.

When it comes to science, remember that even scientists can make un-scientific statements at times. Differentiate between them clearly. Second, science has been known in history to be over-simplistic, incomplete, or just plain wrong. Be careful when posturing current scientific arguments against the Bible.

Theological growth happens over our entire lives. I know, understand and believe much more than I did as a new Christian at age 21. Spend time in theological literature or in books on topics of interest and challenge. This will broaden your understanding of God and the Bible. And maybe most importantly, don’t just read books you think you’ll agree with, put out by your own church or pet-authors!

Practical

9. Not knowing when to apply certain advice or laws, or when the letter of one law violates the spirit of another practice

10. A passage calls out a certain action of mine (or culture) as sin

11. A practice/tradition of my church seems to go against other texts of scripture

For most Christians, this is the challenging part. We don’t know where to go or how to act always, in light of certain passages. But if it requires repentance and contrition, ask God for this gift. Don’t wait to admit where you’ve been wrong.

More often, living by faith simply requires courage to make a change personally. Ask God for this courage, and step out in faith. If you can make one change—for instance, becoming generous with the poor or resting on the Sabbath day—do it once, and ask God to help you make it a habit. Within the larger church, this can be a problem because we’d like change today, but our vote only counts as one. As God for guidance and patience.

In any of these challenges, we should be like the Bereans in Acts 17. We should continue to study and not give up.

Finally, we should study prayerfully, as the lesson emphasizes. We should pray for understanding and wisdom to read Scripture spiritually. I must ask God for a humble attitude, a willingness for Him to reveal what He wants me to know in His time, and then faith to His timing.

What other ways has the Bible been a source of challenge to you?

Closing Comments Difficult passages, once accepted, can be some of the greatest impetuses to deeper study. They can bring clarification and depth to long-held beliefs, offer a change to erroneous understanding and practices, or even alter our entire worldview. Maybe you’ve never thought about praising God for the texts you don’t understand, but this might just be the best place to start!

This commentary, by Brant Berglin, originally appeared on the Good Word website, created by the Walla Walla School of Religion. Reproduced here by permission.

Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10533

It is the task of theologians to straighten up the loose ends in order to calm down difficult questions and doubts. Allow me to help deal with the problems.

The scriptures were written over a period of several hundred years by a number of people, many unknown. They lived under diverse political circumstances and wrote across periods of evolving religious views. It should be no surprise that they each had their own agendas. Listening to each of them in their own context will allow them to be heard as they intended. There will of necessity be differing views and understandings. It is only the preconceived requirement that they harmonize that causes difficulty. Allow the contradictions to stand, and don’t attempt to pound square pegs into round holes.

When looking for answers about the physical universe, look to the disciplines of astronomy, biology, genetics, geology, paleontology, archaeology, climatology, etc. Remember, the writers of the Bible had no understanding whatsoever of these subjects. They were the literal flat-earthers. They thought there was a metallic dome over the earth called the firmament. They thought Yahweh lived up there and that there was a multi tiered heaven above the firmament. They didn’t know where the sun went at night. There is no reason to consult them on questions of science. They just didn’t know. The lived in the bronze age and simply related the common wisdom of their age. We could ask where they got their information, but they actually don’t say. We could ask who they were, but in many cases, including Genesis, they are anonymous. We could ask when they wrote, but we can’t narrow it down closer than a range of a few hundred years. It is a mistake, when asking questions about the ancient past of the earth and the universe, to try to harmonize the disciplines of the scientific method with the legends told by mystics in the ancient near east. To claim that the information they related was “revealed” or “inspired” and that therefore scientific facts must conform to their stories is the cause of the difficulty suggested in the article. The scientific method looks at data and is used to form theories; there is always the built in corrective of trying to falsify those theories in order to revise or replace them. The claims of ancient mystics have no foundation is verifiable methodology and shouldn’t be used to arrive at understandings which they themselves didn’t possess. As an aside, it should be noted that the anonymous author(s) of Genesis don’t even claim a special source of information which are referred to as revelation and inspiration. They, in fact, offer no claims as to how they know what they know. It was left to others to give the author the status of being inspired or being an infallible source.

All in all, it is the claims made about the purpose and uniqueness of the scriptures that cause the difficulties listed in this article.

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Thanks for this article and also the first comment. Very helpful and balanced.

That’s exactly right. In fact, your entire post is a keeper. Thanks.

I read this anticipating you would wrestle with those texts and stories in which God is portrayed as the destroyer or killer of families and babies. This is the most difficult part of the Bible for most everyone. You missed it!

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This doesn’t seem to leave room for any religion or spiritual understanding let alone a Holy Spirit to guide human minds. There are some good points such as the ancients not knowing what science was–they didn’t need it. Maybe I’m not comprehending what you are saying, but it seems to make the human brain the highest source of information which means all science or learning is limited to the ability of that brain–a tiny particle in a vast universe.

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The human brain is conscious and capable of reasoning. While imperfect, it is the only entity capable of gaining an understanding of existence and existents. All knowledge gained must be subjected to evidence and data, verification, and revision as it is integrated into the hierarchy of accumulated facts. Reason isn’t simply one tool in the box; it is the only tool in the box.

The ancients knew nothing about the makeup and history of the cosmos, the geologic history of earth, the descent of life and genetics, physical laws, or the history of civilization much before the recent memory of their own time.

The writer(s) of Genesis told stories. Again, THEY TOLD STORIES. They didn’t tell us how they knew them to be true or where they got the stories in the first place. We don’t know who wrote them down or when. To accord these stories the position of the starting place for scientific knowledge, or worse, giving them veto power over the findings thereof is a failure to think. It is, in effect, beginning with a conclusion and then looking for confirming evidence while discarding non-confirming evidence. It is no wonder that trying to give authority to the stories of origins and comparing them to the rigors of scientific discovery result in “difficult passages”.

Regarding the apparent immoral commands of Yahweh to kill all the enemies of Israel including babies, you are applying a moral code which you sense to be objectively true in a sense. To put it another way, we could ask, “Are all the commands of Yahweh moral because he orders them? Or does Yahweh give commands because they are moral?”

Does a moral law exist outside of Yahweh by which his commands may be judged? Or do the most heinous commands of Yahweh stand beyond question simply because his authority is to be unquestioned? If it is the latter, any directives of any mystic (prophet) speaking for a god are therefore moral, no matter how much they offend natural human sensitivities. There is no basis to condemn the actions of the 9/11 jihadists. The armies of Joshua committing barbarities against Canaanite villages are of the same species. The only difference is in which “prophet” is followed.

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In some passages, God is described as gloating at the atrocities attributed to Him. My solution works for me: The Bible is somewhat less than God’s word.

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" All knowledge gained must be subjected to evidence and data, verification, and revision as it is integrated into the hierarchy of accumulated facts."

This is the basis for science as we know it. And is mostly correct. Again it depends on the human brain and its subjectivity. Like religions many human factors come into its interpretations as well as lack of complete knowledge of the universe or even history which is written by the winners or elite of any group or area. I would suggest there is no objective truth known to humans. That has certainly been proven clear in our current national dilemma.

To the ancients everything that happened was contributed to their gods. I believe it is the same with Israel. The difference was that their God was described as love and his commandments were based on a relationship with him and other humans. As a primitive people, they cannot be compared with moderns who are also violent in a different way and have learned how to kill millions rather than thousands. Israel also had to defend themselves against annihilation by other nations. They did not trust their God’s initial method of protection to drive out wicked and destructive pagans who practiced human sacrifice. They depended on war and needed help in that as well–but they suffered from that choice.
We want primitive peoples to live so-called civilized lives. We ignore the existence of an adversary because modern minds can’t comprehend it.

Stories tell truth; fictional stories also tell truth if by principle they show truth. We can’t prove the past by science (neither creation nor evolution). We did not observe it. One is materialistic. The other spiritual; a world the materialist does not understand neither can he if he rejects it. Quantum physics is revealing a world beyond what we know and can’t explain…
I can’t hold a 6000-year-old earth as more than a metaphor, but it says God created from an already-created chaotic sphere. The six days could be symbolic. But whether they are or not, we miss the whole point by not asking what each means. Meaning gets lost in materialism.

Belief in God is stronger that the case for unbelief so that true atheism has to be thought of as superstition and an irrational view of reality sustained by an absence of curiosity or a strong will to believe in the absurd.

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I’m sorry, but I’m not following you at all.

However, the idea that Yahweh described a love relationship is pretty iffy. OK, he is described as jealous and if the Israelites cheated on him, he would whack them. If they made graven images he would whack them. If they broke the sabbath, he would whack them. If they used his name in vain, he would whack them. If they fraternized with Philistines, he would whack them. If he left anybody alive in a neighboring village he had ordered destroyed, he would whack them. With love like that, who needs enemies?

Folklore has nothing to teach us about reality. It can be used to teach lessons as did Aesop’s fables. Whether or not those lessons are valid is something else.

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I think your study, if any, is rather shallow. The Bible must be taken as a whole and spreads over thousands of years. You don’t understand the terms such as “jealous” nor the Hebrew words. If Israel was swallowed up by other cultures and gods, they would no longer exist and their God would have no communication with humans and belong to the adversary. Then they would really know what violence was.
I originally brought up the difficult passages because the writer didn’t address them. They are written in a primitive language and setting that unbelievers use against the inspiration of the Bible. Without an adversary in an obvious war between good and evil, we have no answers. Materialism cannot answer it.

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No, the Bible wasn’t written over thousands of years. It covers a period of about 600 years.

The Bible isn’t “a whole”. It is a collection of disparate writings which have been forced together.

“If Israel was swallowed up by other cultures and gods, they would no longer exist and their God would have no communication with humans and belong to the adversary.” If Yahweh actually exists, would he have no means of communicating with humans without using the intermediary of Israel? Is he that helpless? We don’t need to invent an adversary to understand moral principles.

Don’t lecture me on ancient biblical languages. Did you study them? I have a minor in Greek and studied Hebrew at AU.

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I so agree with that. The Bible is a collection of books, written over a period of many hundreds of years by fallible people who brought with them to their writing that fallibility, and even their own prejudices, and and misunderstandings. It was compiled a few hundred years ago by a group of church men who also were fallible and who had their own political and religious agendas.

And we dare to try to proof text or brethren or strangers with it using scriptural brutality upon them. smh…

The Bible is a guide for life, sure, but even Jesus pointed out repeatedly that it was too fallible a document with which to demand perfect obedience from our brother or sister.

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Maybe the Bible isn’t such a great guide to life. One has to cherry pick to separate the good from the bad.

OT guidelines: Kill the unbelievers living nearby. Rape young women and pay reparations to their fathers. Call down fire upon religious leaders with whom you disagree. Stone sabbath breakers to death. Drag your disrespectful child to the city square and kill him.

OK, let’s go over to the NT and Jesus for better advice. Don’t make plans for the future or make financial arrangements. Sell everything you have and give it away. If you disagree with the practices of your church, arrive with a whip and physically attack them. Don’t resist enemies who want to rob you or give you a good beat down. Hate your mother and father, brother and sister. Own no property and hold all things in common with other church members; holding anything back gets you the death penalty. Keep those loud mouthed women quiet. If you are a slave, be obedient; if you run away, you must return to your master. Don’t get married because the coming of the lord is at hand (got that one wrong). Consider Jews the sons of the devil. Don’t worry about those who misbehave; there will be deferred violence when all will be thrown into the fire. They’ll get theirs…

If any of these things create misgivings or seem less than moral, recognize that we are judging by an independent ethical standard.

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Bart, you are to be congratulated. It seems you have pulled yourself up out of the mire of belief in God. As an objectivist who values proof, although you Rand away from deeper questions, still, yea, therefore, your faith is to be admired. Although there is no god and no objective ground for ethics, you have risen above the need for consistent logic to proclaim the objective self as god. It is refreshing to hear your consistent rejection of the creator God who loves humans. The very idea of love is a delusion, objectively speaking. Your strong objectivist faith overcomes the fact that if a loving creator does not exist then everything is subjective–you have been a wonderful example to me of resistance to ultimate objectivity. In these blogs you Bart, are The Fountainhead of objectivist subjectivist wisdom. You the man!

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When faced with insurmountable difficulties, it seems that you have sunk to the level of ad hominem mischaracterization and straw-man attacks. It seems that you have no interest in discussing the actual problems of biblical ethics.

Your concept of a “God who loves humans” is countered by the most basic sense of human loving protection and affection. According to your perspective, God only loves a handful of humans. In the time of Noah he is said to have preserved 8 or so and drowned the rest of the humans he so dearly loved. In the future, he will preserve a small number and burn billions alive. Maybe our concepts of love differ Darrel.

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I think that’s what I said, pretty much? If you really look at it? But maybe I didn’t spell it out for you? My inference was that if the Christ people point to cherry picked scripture, who the hell are they to demand infallibility and absolute obedience? Obedience to what? Their own superior reading of a book that’s fallible? We quickly descend into chaos. How many denominations and churches are there now, pretending to be the real one?

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Sorry. I was actually agreeing with you. I simply used your comment as a launching pad for further discussion on the idea.

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Bart, so why is it objectively wrong to destroy billions of people? You are an objectivist. Your objection is a puzzle to me

Our rights emerge ontologically. Humans are rational animals, or at least have that capacity. As such we have values, the first and most fundamental of which is our own life. Using our thought processes, we have the capacity to make judgments for the preservation and sustenance of that life. Those judgments proceed with action to protect and sustain our life. The concept of rights is built upon our rational self awareness, free will, our self ownership, and freedom of action in the pursuit of our life. Each of us objectively values his own life and has a right to it.

In self defense, we have the right to protect our life from those who would infringe on our freedom of action or who would take our life.

Consider this ethical principal; NO ONE MAY INITIATE THE USE OF FORCE AGAINST ANOTHER. This includes restrictions on individuals, groups, and governments. Force may only be used as defense or retaliation against those who would violate rights. This principal, if followed consistently, would solve most societal problems.

I have to point out, though, you are engaging in misdirection. I have noticed this pattern in the past. You are trying to change the subject away from the theological problems which are the subject of this article, presumably because they are indefensible, and you are aware of it.

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